It’s been a topsy-turvy year. Last May, at a major skepticism shindig, I accused capital-S skeptics of tribalism and other sins. This week I crossed the country and a cultural chasm to speak at “Sages & Scientists,” convened by holistic-health and spirituality mogul Deepak Chopra, a frequent target of skeptics. The conference website promises that “preeminent thinkers” will “journey into life’s deepest mysteries and seek answers to its biggest questions.” It also calls for “a new science” that “can accept consciousness as fundamental and not just something generated by the brain.” Below is a lightly edited transcript of my talk. See also my follow-up post, which critiques Chopra’s monetization of meditation. –John Horgan
I feel a little out of place here. I’m not a scientist, or a sage. I’m just a grouchy, hyper-skeptical science journalist.
Other speakers are telling you about profound revelations at the frontiers of science. Twenty years ago, I predicted there won’t be any more revelations as profound as quantum mechanics, relativity, the big bang, natural selection and the genetic code.
Scientists will keep tweaking these fundamental paradigms, but they won’t transcend them. And they might never solve the biggest mysteries: how the universe began, how life began and how mind emerges from matter.
That was the theme of The End of Science. I expected scientific authorities to hate the book, and they did. What freaked me out was how much bunkrapt readers liked it.
Biologist Peter Medawar coined the term bunkrapt to describe believers in things lacking a scientific basis, like immortal souls, loving gods or quantum consciousness fields pervading the cosmos.
Bunkrapt readers seemed to think that if mainstream science ends, bunk can flourish. They exulted, Yeah, boring old materialist science is dead! Long live parapsychology and quantum cosmic consciousness!
Maybe I should have expected this reaction. In my book’s epilogue, I describe a psychedelic trip in which I became God. But even though I get bunkrapt now and then, I’m a fuddy-duddy reductionist at heart. I write for Scientific American, for God’s sake!
I suspect Deepak invited me here because I’ve bashed skeptics who’ve bashed him, like biologist Jerry Coyne and physicist Lawrence Krauss. The enemy of my enemy is my friend. But for reasons I’ll get to soon, I’m also skeptical of Deepak’s call for a post-materialist science.
There’s another Scientific American skeptic here, Michael Shermer, but he focuses on easy targets like creationism and spoon-bending. I prefer bashing bunk peddled by scientific authorities, like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins.
So in the time I have left, I’ll fire wildly in all directions, attacking what I believe to be bunk in physics, neuroscience and other fields. I’ll even take a shot at meditation. Ideally, other speakers will fire back, and we’ll generate drama, if not illumination.
MULTIVERSES AND OTHER BUNK
First, let’s look at physics. The archetypal hard science is getting soft-headed. For decades, physicists have tried to find a unified theory that describes all nature’s forces and tells us where the universe came from and why it is the way it is.
The most popular unified theory says everything is made of strings wriggling in 10 or more dimensions. Edward Witten, who has been called the smartest physicist since Newton, assured me recently that string theory is “on the right track.”
But string theory suffers from a fatal flaw. The strings are too small to be detected by any feasible experiment. If a theory can’t be verified or falsified, it’s not science. That's why critics call string theory “not even wrong.”
The same is true of multiverse theories, which say our cosmos is one of many. Multiverse theories come in multi-versions, inspired by string theory, quantum mechanics and a dubious idea called cosmic inflation. Like strings, the existence of other universes can’t be proved or disproved.
To explain why we’re in this universe rather than one with different laws, multiverse popularizers like Brian Greene and Sean Carroll invoke the anthropic principle. Our universe must be as we observe it to be, because otherwise, we wouldn’t be here to observe it.
If that sounds like a vacuous tautology, that’s because it is. I’ve never understood why smart people take the anthropic principle seriously.
IS REALITY A SIMULATION?
The worst cosmic meme, propagated by Neil de Grasse Tyson and Elon Musk, among others, says our universe is a simulation produced by super-intelligent aliens. This notion evokes The Matrix, and the mystical doctrine that our world is an illusion. It isn’t just bunk. It’s immoral, because it trivializes our world’s all-too-real wars, poverty, injustice and suffering.
There have been genuine discoveries in physics over the last two decades, but none has triggered a major paradigm shift. In the late 1990s, astronomers discovered that the expansion of the universe is speeding up.
That was a huge surprise, but it didn’t force physicists to abandon the big bang. The same is true of the Higgs boson and gravitational waves, which confirmed quantum mechanics and general relativity.
Over the past two decades, astronomers have detected thousands of planets around other stars, including our closest neighbor, Proxima Centauri. If we detect life on one of those planets, or anywhere beyond Earth, that would blow science wide open. But given the immense size of the cosmos, and the limits of our technology, we might never know for sure whether life exists elsewhere.
I’m hardly the only person who has doubts about the future of physics. In a recent TED Talk, physicist Harry Cliff admitted that “for the first time in the history of science, we could be facing questions that we cannot answer.”
NEUROSCIENCE GETS MYSTICAL
Let’s turn now to consciousness. The blurb for this conference calls it “the greatest mystery,” and I agree. I used to think the greatest mystery is why there’s something rather than nothing, but without mind, there might as well be nothing.
In the early 1990s, Francis Crick and Christof Koch proposed that science can explain consciousness by finding its neural underpinnings. This materialist approach has enormous potential, practical and philosophical. It might help us find better treatments for mental illness and yield insights into free will.
But mainstream mind-science has gotten remarkably bunkrapt lately. Last spring, I attended a consciousness powwow in Tucson, which featured a bewildering variety of approaches to the mind. Quantum theories, information theories, Bayesian theories, even psychoanalysis. Speakers claimed to have found evidence for paranormal effects like telekinesis and precognition.
Christof Koch, who used to oppose bunk, now propagates integrated information theory, which conjectures that consciousness lurks within all matter. This is the same claim made by panpsychism, an ancient mystical doctrine.
Last year, at a workshop on integrated information theory, tenured professors from MIT and other major institutions debated whether dark energy is conscious. That’s bunk squared!
Many mind-scientists have embraced Buddhism, a 2,500-year-old religion that postulates reincarnation and other supernatural tenets. That’s like physicists resurrecting the ancient belief that everything is made of earth, water, air and fire.
These are signs of scientific desperation, not progress. Explaining how consciousness emerges from matter is science’s hardest problem. It might be unsolvable. Claiming that consciousness has been lurking within all matter from the beginning of time isn’t a solution. It’s a surrender.
Science is materialist by definition. Science reveals the physical principles underpinning the bloomin’, buzzin’ confusion of the world. Materialism can’t account for everything, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. When science abandons materialism, it isn’t science any more.
Ideas like panpsychism take us back to the narcissism of the dark ages, when we assumed that the universe revolves around us. The last thing science needs is neo-geocentrism.
A HI-TECH HEAVEN FOR MATERIALISTS
Materialists can get pretty bunkrapt too. Many scientists and engineers who scorn belief in God and heaven believe in the Singularity. This is the idea that technologies like brain implants and genetic engineering will soon transform us into immortal, super-intelligent cyborgs.
Proponents claim the Singularity is a realistic projection of scientific advances, especially in digital technologies. But they ignore fields in which progress has been extremely slow.
Tomorrow, other speakers will talk about the potential of genetics. Please keep this in mind: Over the past two decades, researchers have carried out more than 2,000 clinical trials of gene therapies, and the FDA hasn’t approved a single therapy for sale.
MEDITATION, THE NEW SNAKE OIL
Now I’ll turn to meditation, which can supposedly treat everything that ails you, from AIDS to aging. Researchers making these claims are often linked to pro-meditation groups, like the Chopra Foundation and the Transcendental Meditation movement.
Objective assessments of meditation show mild benefits, consistent with the placebo effect. If you think meditation will alleviate your anxiety or depression, there’s a chance it will. Meditation is certainly safer than antidepressants, which are like placebos with side effects. But telling people that wishful thinking can help them overcome serious illnesses, like cancer, is cruel. [My follow-up post delves into Chopra's claims about meditation and cancer.]
Some meditation teachers imply that they’ve attained a state of bliss and saint-like grace called enlightenment, which they can help students attain, too. But these teachers often behave more like sociopaths than saints. Beware gurus peddling enlightenment.
Believe it or not, I hate being a Debbie Downer. So I’ll end with two upbeat messages:
First, I’m not an atheist. I have a hard time believing that random collisions of particles created this. Science and psychedelics have taught me that our existence is infinitely improbable, and hence a miracle.
Second, I’m pessimistic about scientific progress but optimistic about social progress. Over the past two centuries, humanity has gotten healthier, wealthier, more free and more peaceful. I see no reason why these trends can’t continue.
We’ll never solve the mystery of existence. We won’t digitize our psyches and live forever in cyberspace, or attain global cosmic consciousness. But we can do something much better. We can create a world without poverty, tyranny and war. And that’s not bunk.
The End of Science, 2015 edition.
The End of War, 2014 edition.